Becoming Unusually Truth-Oriented

This is a post on “the ba­sics”—the sim­plest mo­ment-to-mo­ment at­ti­tudes one can take to ori­ent to­ward truth, with­out any spe­cial calcu­la­tions such as Fermi es­ti­mates or re­mem­ber­ing pri­ors to avoid base-rate ne­glect. At the same time, it’s some­thing al­most ev­ery­one can fruit­fully work on (I sus­pect), in­clud­ing my­self.

Some­what similar to track-back med­i­ta­tion.


Tip of the Tongue

The cen­tral claim here is that there’s a spe­cial art as­so­ci­ated with what you do when some­thing is “on the tip of your tongue” and you can’t quite re­mem­ber it. Most peo­ple have the skill to some ex­tent, but, it can be sharp­ened to a fine point.

Im­proved mem­ory helps you be­come truth-ori­ented in a fact-ori­ented, de­tail-ori­ented sense. It works against in­ac­cu­racy. It also works against mis­s­peak­ing, and thus prop­a­gat­ing false­hoods.

Re­mem­ber­ing Dreams

I first ex­plic­itly no­ticed the effec­tive­ness of this tech­nique for re­mem­ber­ing dreams. When I wake up, I of­ten have only one sig­nifi­cant mem­ory from my dreams. How­ever, when I fo­cus on the mem­ory, ex­plic­itly nam­ing each de­tail I can re­call, and gen­tly wait­ing for more, I can of­ten un­fold the mem­ory into far, far more than I ini­tially thought I could re­mem­ber.

  • Each de­tail you re­call can open up more de­tails.

  • There’s some­thing spe­cial about ex­plic­itly nam­ing de­tails. I might have a gen­eral sense that there was a por­tal in the sky that looked a cer­tain way, but ex­plic­itly con­firm­ing in my head that it looked as if the sky were bro­ken glass, but at the same time the por­tal was perfectly round, might bring back more mem­o­ries.

    • Writ­ing things down on pa­per is prob­a­bly a good way of mak­ing sure you’re ex­plic­itly con­firm­ing each de­tail, if you want to go that far.

  • It’s also very im­por­tant to sit with mem­o­ries and give them time to bring some­thing more. Some­times there will be a rush of mem­o­ries, with each new item bring­ing more and more. Other times, you’ll be stuck. It’s easy to fail at that step, as­sum­ing that no more is com­ing. In my ex­pe­rience, if you sit with the mem­o­ries, avoid get­ting dis­tracted, and gen­tly ask for more, more will of­ten come to you fairly soon. You’ll sur­prise your­self with what you can re­mem­ber.

Some­times I don’t even re­mem­ber any images from the dream at all, but have a vague sense of the dream (ex­cite­ment, peace, more com­pli­cated emo­tions). I can still some­times re­call much more if I ex­plic­itly de­scribe the left-over feel­ing to my­self in as much de­tail as pos­si­ble, and sit with it pa­tiently wait­ing for more.

Think of it as form­ing a bet­ter re­la­tion­ship with your mem­ory. It’s eas­ier to wait pa­tiently when you’ve had sev­eral ex­pe­riences where it’s paid off. Ex­plic­itly pro­cess­ing de­tails of what you’ve re­mem­bered lets your mem­ory know you’re in­ter­ested, helping to keep it en­gaged in search­ing for more (and, po­ten­tially, train­ing it to re­tain more).

Even­tu­ally, if you’re bet­ter cal­ibrated, you won’t have to wait 5 min­utes try­ing fruitlessly if you re­ally don’t think you will re­mem­ber. But in or­der to be well-cal­ibrated about that, you have to try it some­times.

You might be wor­ried about con­fab­u­la­tion. I’ll talk more about that later.

Re­mem­ber­ing Events

My claim is that this tech­nique gen­er­al­izes to any mem­ory. Dreams might be a good prac­tice case, es­pe­cially if you don’t have too many cog­ni­tively de­mand­ing dis­trac­tions in the morn­ing.

But you can try the same thing with any­thing. Some­one I knew with es­pe­cially good mem­ory told me that he thought this was most of his skill; he might have started out with slightly above-av­er­age mem­ory, at some point he started tak­ing pride in his rep­u­ta­tion for good mem­ory. This prompted him to put effort into it, re­hears­ing mem­o­ries much more than he oth­er­wise would. Peo­ple would then re­mark on his good mem­ory, fur­ther re­in­forc­ing the be­hav­ior.

Con­ver­sa­tions, and in­ter­ac­tions with peo­ple gen­er­ally, might make a good prac­tice case. Many peo­ple already re-visit con­ver­sa­tions men­tally over and over (per­haps think­ing of things they wish they’d said). You can treat these the same way as dreams, try­ing to re­call as much de­tail as you can each time you think of them.

Of course, re­hears­ing cer­tain mem­o­ries again and again might not be a good thing. Watch whether you’re wors­en­ing any men­tal prob­lems such as de­pres­sion. It may be good to cou­ple this prac­tice with star­ing into re­grets and other emo­tion­ally bal­anc­ing tech­niques, so that re­hears­ing mem­o­ries is use­ful rather than in­ten­sify­ing emo­tional dam­age from those mem­o­ries.

False Memories

Some stud­ies about mem­ory may give you pause.

  • First of all, there is ev­i­dence that peo­ple fabri­cate false mem­o­ries. So, how can we trust re­call? Maybe try­ing harder to re­call some­thing ac­tu­ally gen­er­ates false mem­o­ries.

  • Se­cond, there’s been some re­search sug­gest­ing that in some sense we “re­trieve” mem­o­ries (take them out of stor­age), and then “put them back”; and if the pro­cess is dis­rupted be­fore we “put them back”, we can be made to for­get the mem­ory. This sug­gests that mem­o­ries might be al­tered ev­ery time they get touched, which would mean they’d last longer if we didn’t think about them.

Un­for­tu­nately, for­get­ting is also a thing, so mak­ing mem­o­ries last longer by avoid­ing them doesn’t seem to be an op­tion. Re­hearsal is nec­es­sary for sharper mem­ory.

Still, false mem­o­ries seem like a sig­nifi­cant con­cern. Me­mories just seem real. If false mem­o­ries are re­ally com­mon and easy to cre­ate, what are we sup­posed to do about that?

I think the situ­a­tion isn’t re­ally hope­less. I think most false mem­o­ries are more like mis­taken in­fer­ences. I might be sure I put my keys in my pants pocket, where I always put them. But then I might even­tu­ally re­call that I put them some­where else yes­ter­day. What seemed like a mem­ory was ac­tu­ally an in­fer­ence.

As long as you’re aware of these is­sues, I would ex­pect that gen­tly tug­ging on mem­o­ries to re­call more de­tails would im­prove things rather than lead to more con­fab­u­la­tion.

In my opinion, the crit­i­cal turn­ing point should be: if you are good enough at work­ing with your mem­o­ries that you have started to see through some of your own false mem­o­ries, then you can start to be­come more con­fi­dent in your judge­ments of which mem­o­ries are real or false.

I could be wrong, of course. This is a crit­i­cal ques­tion in how good/​im­por­tant the over­all prac­tice is.

Gendlin’s Focusing

There’s an ob­vi­ous similar­ity be­tween what I’m de­scribing and Gendlin’s Fo­cus­ing. I similarly gen­tly in­ter­act with a “felt sense” and try to name it, and iter­ate the pro­cess to get more de­tail. How­ever, the “felt sense” is not es­pe­cially lo­cated in my body the way it’s de­scribed in Gendlin’s fo­cus­ing. It’s pos­si­ble that body sen­sa­tions are ac­tu­ally in­volved at a sub­con­scious level.

In any case, you may find the “gen­tle tug­ging” kind of stance use­ful for un­tan­gling emo­tions, not just re­call­ing mem­o­ries. Also, learn­ing Fo­cus­ing might help with mem­ory and the other things I’m de­scribing in this post?

The con­nec­tion to Fo­cus­ing also sup­ports the idea that you can tell be­tween true mem­o­ries and con­fab­u­la­tions by check­ing the de­gree of “fit”—you have a felt sense, then you de­scribe the thing ex­plic­itly (which gives you a bet­ter “han­dle” for it), then you ask your­self whether the name “res­onates” with the felt sense. This is like a re­al­ity check (a theme I’ll re­turn to in the in­ner-sim sec­tion). But of course this isn’t par­tic­u­larly re­as­sur­ing un­less you already be­lieve that Fo­cus­ing is un­cov­er­ing (as op­posed to con­fab­u­lat­ing) in­for­ma­tion.

Re­mem­ber­ing Ideas

I tend to place a high value on re­mem­ber­ing ideas. A for­got­ten idea is like a lit­tle death. I gen­er­ally pre­fer the con­ver­sa­tion norm of paus­ing if some­one has for­got­ten an idea, pos­si­bly for a sig­nifi­cant amount of time, so they can try and re­cover it. Ideas are im­por­tant.

This habit gave me a lot of prac­tice with tip-of-the-tongue type rec­ol­lec­tion and the “gen­tle tug­ging” tech­nique. Prac­tic­ing this stuff seems quite im­por­tant for be­ing able to do it when you need it. So I think giv­ing your­self sig­nifi­cant time to try and re­mem­ber for­got­ten ideas is quite valuable if only as prac­tice.

I think a similar sort of men­tal mo­tion is in­volved in de­vel­op­ing ideas, as well. Let’s move on from the mem­ory sec­tion...

Truth-Ori­ented Thinking

Devel­op­ing Ideas

When you have an idea, you start with a kind of “poin­ter”—a felt sense which says that there should be a think in a par­tic­u­lar di­rec­tion. You can un­pack the poin­ter by ex­plic­itly nam­ing things about it, check­ing for “fit” with the felt sense. The more you name, the eas­ier it is to pull more de­tails out.

Some­times it turns out that the idea re­ally doesn’t make any sense at all; the things with the best “fit” don’t ac­tu­ally do any­thing good when you ex­plic­itly spell them out. Then the felt sense changes.

To me, it feels like the felt sense traces out nat­u­ral “path­ways” across a “land­scape” which you’re ex­plor­ing. An idea might be a poin­ter which leads to a dead end, but there’s still “re­ally a path there”—you had it, which must mean that it was a nat­u­ral thought to have in some sense. I take in­ter­est not just in what’s true, but what the nat­u­ral de­vel­op­ment of cer­tain ideas is. This kind of at­ti­tude helps you ex­plore al­ter­na­tive path­ways.

Gendlin de­scribes his no­tion of Fo­cus­ing as in­volved in sci­en­tific re­search. It’s not just about emo­tions. I think I’m de­scribing the same thing here.

In­ner Sim

CFAR teaches a class on “in­ner sim”, the in­tu­itive ex­pec­ta­tions you have. When you try to bal­ance one ob­ject on top of an­other, you have an in­tu­ition about whether it will fall. If some­one tells you some­thing, you might have an in­tu­ition about whether they’re ly­ing. You can’t nec­es­sar­ily un­pack these in­tu­itions very well. Nor are they perfectly ac­cu­rate. But they are quite use­ful.

The sur­pris­ing thing is that it seems many peo­ple don’t nat­u­rally make use of their in­ner sims as much as they could. Let’s say you’re at work, and you come up with a plan for com­plet­ing a pro­ject within a week. The words “plan­ning fal­lacy” might come to mind, but let’s set that aside and ask a differ­ent ques­tion—does your in­ner sim re­ally ex­pect the pro­ject to be done in a week? This kind of ques­tion can give use­ful in­for­ma­tion sur­pris­ingly of­ten. And if your in­ner sim doesn’t think the plan will work, you can try and ask your­self ques­tions like why it will fail.

So, once you’ve de­vel­oped an idea via the method­ol­ogy in the pre­vi­ous sec­tion, an­other thing you can do is ask your in­ner sim about the idea. Is it true? Is it real? Can it work? What do you ac­tu­ally ex­pect?

Us­ing gen­tle tug­ging for idea de­vel­op­ment is just as good for cre­at­ing fact or fic­tion, so you have to add this kind of re­al­ity check.

Also, com­mu­ni­cat­ing with the in­ner sim can be a lot like com­mu­ni­cat­ing with mem­ory. You can gen­tly sit with the ques­tion “what do I ac­tu­ally ex­pect?” and see what comes up. And you similarly want to try and ex­plic­itly name what comes up; each de­tail of your ex­pec­ta­tions which you ex­plic­itly name can help pull more out.

Mo­ti­vated Cognition

Just like we wor­ried about false mem­o­ries, we might worry about mo­ti­vated cog­ni­tion. Does ask­ing your in­ner sim re­ally provide a truth check? Does fol­low­ing your felt sense cre­ate a bias in what ideas you de­velop?

In my ex­pe­rience, if I’m caught up in mo­ti­vated cog­ni­tion, it is liter­ally harder to re­mem­ber things which go against what I’m say­ing—it seems like I just don’t re­mem­ber them. But the same mem­ory tech­niques which I’ve men­tioned do help. I might not want to say the con­trary facts once I re­call them, but I can at least con­sciously de­cide that.

Similarly, I think the in­ner-sim checks are in­deed use­ful in com­bat­ing mo­ti­vated cog­ni­tion. Is it true? Is it real? What do I ac­tu­ally ex­pect? What do I ac­tu­ally think? Giv­ing your­self a lit­tle pause to sit with these ques­tions can make you change your mind dur­ing an ar­gu­ment in a num­ber of sec­onds (in my ex­pe­rience).

Cor­rect­ing Yourself

For any of this to work dur­ing a con­ver­sa­tion, I think you have to up your will­ing­ness to cor­rect your­self. The thing is, if you no­tice dur­ing a con­ver­sa­tion that you gave a false ac­count of events, then there’s go­ing to be some con­sis­tency bias mak­ing you fa­vor the ver­sion you’ve already said, and maybe some cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance around not think­ing of your­self as some­one who gives false ac­counts.

It’s not too un­com­mon for me to de­scribe some­thing with a nice “nar­ra­tive logic” to it, and then re­mem­ber some facts which don’t fit the nar­ra­tive. Th­ese ad­di­tional facts may not even im­prove the other per­son’s un­der­stand­ing of the situ­a­tion—the nar­ra­tive is op­ti­mized to ex­plain things in an un­der­stand­able way, whereas the cor­rected de­tail isn’t. But nowa­days I try to men­tion them “for my own san­ity” even if it doesn’t make the con­ver­sa­tion bet­ter.

If I don’t do this, mem­ory checks and re­al­ity checks will of­ten feel coun­ter­pro­duc­tive in con­ver­sa­tions. If I’m un­will­ing to aban­don my nar­ra­tive ver­bally, then cor­rect­ing it in­ter­nally is a wasted mo­tion which just gen­er­ates a nar­ra­tive/​fact di­vide which I then have to track.

Ex­plain­ing Things to Others

Just as ex­plic­itly nam­ing things within your own head can help you pull de­tail out, once you think you un­der­stand some­thing, ex­plain­ing it to some­one else can help pull a whole lot more de­tail out. This is prob­a­bly true for mem­ory, too.

It’s not even nec­es­sar­ily about the in­ter­ac­tion with the other per­son. Just try­ing to write some­thing for some­one else (and then never shar­ing it) can be similarly use­ful, whether it’s a spe­cific au­di­ence or a broad one. The need to bridge the in­fer­en­tial gap makes many more de­tails feel rele­vant, which didn’t feel rele­vant when you were ex­plain­ing it to your­self.

Nat­u­rally, com­mu­ni­cat­ing an idea to an­other per­son is also great for un­cov­er­ing prob­lems.

This goes back to the rea­son why the over­all tech­nique I’m dis­cussing works at all. Ex­plic­itly nam­ing de­tails of a mem­ory helps to un­pack it be­cause what you know you know is differ­ent than what you know. You have a kind of men­tal illu­sion that you’re re­mem­ber­ing a whole con­ver­sa­tion, but you’re not re­ally fit­ting all those de­tails in short-term mem­ory, which means you’re not suc­cess­fully pul­ling on all the as­so­ci­a­tions. Similarly, you might think you un­der­stand some­thing, but be un­able to re­ally ex­plain all the de­tails.

Gears Thinking

Gears-level think­ing is like un­pack­ing an idea with ex­cep­tion­ally high stan­dards about whether you re­ally un­der­stand it. I men­tioned that ex­plain­ing things to oth­ers is helpful be­cause you “pull on” de­tails which you wouldn’t or­di­nar­ily pull on, since you think you un­der­stand them. Gears think­ing doesn’t liter­ally pull on “ev­ery­thing”, but it pulls on a lot more.

I’m afraid that some­one will read that and kind of nod along with­out get­ting it. I’m not talk­ing about just gen­er­ally hav­ing higher stan­dards. I’m talk­ing about the mo­ment-to-mo­ment ex­pe­rience of think­ing. I’m say­ing there’s a men­tal stance you can take where you “stop be­ing lazy about your think­ing”—you don’t re-check re­ally solid things like 1+1=2, but you aren’t satis­fied with a thought un­til you’ve re­ally got­ten all the de­tails in a sig­nifi­cant sense.

The ques­tion you ask isn’t whether some­thing is true; the ques­tion you ask is ex­actly why it’s true. No mat­ter how con­fi­dent you are that, say, a the­o­rem you’re us­ing holds, you want the proof. You’re try­ing to see all the pieces and how they fit to­gether.

It’s like pul­ling out a moth-eaten map and look­ing at the holes, try­ing to fill them in. Maybe you can’t fill them in right away; maybe you have to make a voy­age across the sea. It’s hard. But you want those de­tails; you want the map to be com­plete, not just “good enough”.

Un­der­stand­ing Others

There’s a closely re­lated men­tal stance which I call “ask all the ques­tions”. You might think, from the kind of Fo­cus­ing-like habits I’ve been de­scribing, that you have to turn within to get the an­swers. But your fo­cus­ing ob­ject can also be out­side of you.

You can ori­ent this to­ward typ­i­cal so­cial small-talk. What cog­ni­tive habits lead some­one to ask ques­tions like “what school did you go to” or “do you have any siblings”? You could have a men­tal list of stan­dard ques­tions you ask peo­ple in so­cial set­tings. But a differ­ent way, which I think is more effi­cient, is to fo­cus on your “pic­ture” of the per­son (sort of men­tally re­hears­ing it) and ask­ing ques­tions to fill in the gaps.

Some­thing which sur­prised me when I tried this at­ti­tude on was how self-cen­tred it felt. You’re still look­ing at your map for holes. And, you’re kind of dom­i­nat­ing the con­ver­sa­tion, in terms of steer­ing. But, you can bring in the gen­tle/​pa­tient at­ti­tude I keep talk­ing about.

You can do the same for top­ics other than small talk. Maybe you are try­ing to un­der­stand how some­one things about X. What many peo­ple do is fo­cus mainly on their own pic­ture of X, and let what the other per­son says kind of land in that map, fo­cus­ing ques­tions on prob­lems. And that’s use­ful. But you can also fo­cus on your map of their map. (This might start out be­ing a copy of your map, since you might as­sume that they mostly think about X like you and just have some differ­ent de­tails. But the cog­ni­tive op­er­a­tion is already differ­ent; you bring your at­ten­tion to the places least likely to be the same as for you.)

Again I want to em­pha­size that I’m talk­ing about a mo­ment-to-mo­ment stance. Not oc­ca­sion­ally think­ing “what’s my map of their map?” dur­ing a con­ver­sa­tion. Fo­cus­ing on it pri­mar­ily, let­ting it drive most of your ques­tions.

This can be a good way of ab­sorb­ing tech­ni­cal sub­jects from peo­ple.